The faces along the Orpheum Theater’s facade hang like silent sentinels from another era in the city’s south end along Route 18. The building – along with a handful of others like the Armory in New Bedford’s center and the former Sunbeam bakery off Acushnet Avenue – are the white whales of urban adaptive reuse. They’re on everyone’s wish list for new life.
In the 20th century it presided over, the Orpheum stood in the middle of a bustling commercial center and catered to a French-Canadian neighborhood. Both have departed the scene but the building remains behind – abandoned but never forgotten.
Brooklyn-based photographer and author Matt Lambros has made it his business to remember all such former movie palaces scattered across the nation. He’s collected many of them in his book, After the Final Curtain: The Rise and Fall of the American Movie Theater.
Spinner Publications, the city’s own publishing house, has long busied itself with preserving New Bedford’s history and packaging it for our pleasure between the covers of their beautiful books.
During the New Bedford Bookfest on Saturday, April 22 and Sunday, April 23, both Lambros and Joe Thomas from Spinner will speak about the power the past exerts over us in two special presentations.
Thomas will take the long view and discuss all things urban renewal regarding the City of New Bedford at 11:30am on Saturday, April 22 during a free discussion and slideshow culled from the Spinner archives. Along with the Orpheum and other notable buildings, he will highlight the very place where the Bookfest is happening – at New Bedford’s first co-working center, Groundwork!, located in what is now called the Quest Center at 1213 Purchase Street. It’s the former New Bedford Textile Building, built in 1898, and is a revitalization success story.
Matt Lambros will discuss The Rise and Fall of the American Movie Theater at 1:30pm during a featured, ticketed event. He will discuss his work photographing former movie palaces across the country like the Orpheum Theater. He also has a success story to share. His second book takes a deep dive into the stunning renovation of the fabled Loew’s Kings Theater in Brooklyn. Abandoned for decades, Loew’s Kings is now part of Brooklyn’s future rather than its past. Tickets to Matt’s discussion are $10 and can be purchased here or at the door during the bookfest.
Like Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn, New Bedford’s Orpheum Theater retains a hold on the popular imagination. Maybe it’s those terra cotta faces, its forlorn position along a bastard stretch of highway, or the glamour and magic of the movies, but there is drama in the building.
The Orpheum Theater opened just over a hundred years ago on April 15, 1912 – the day the Titanic sank. That’s quite an opening act – and worthy of a second.
- The pictures on this page were taken by the writer during a tour of the Orpheum Theater several years back. Learn more about on-going efforts to restore the building here.
- The free NEW BEDFORD BOOKFEST happens on Saturday, April 22 and Sunday, April 23 from 11:00 am to 4:00om each day at Groundwork!, 1213 Purchase Street. It features dozens of local, regional and national authors and their books. It is free and open to the public. You can get more information and follow the bookfest at their website here.
Inside the Orpheum Theater…
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